Last year, the University Writing Center played a central role in reviving the Cotter Cup storytelling contest. Working alongside the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library—especially branch manager, Natalie Woods—we engaged K-12 youth throughout the city of Louisville in exciting literacy experiences as we helped them craft, revise and submit poetry to the contest. Writing about his hopes for the Cotter Cup, University Writing Center director Bronwyn Williams wrote, “We hope that this year’s contest is just the first of what will be a growing and important writing event in our community.”
A year on, and a second Cotter Cup under our belt, I believe it is safe to say that this event has met both of these criteria. During the 2022 Cotter Cup, University Writing Center volunteers worked with 28 youths, over twice the amount we were able to engage with the previous year. While we’re pleased with the growth of the Cotter Cup, we’re even more delighted with the depth and variety of experiences we cultivated with young Louisville writers and their families.
The writers who attended Cotter Cup consultations arrived with a diversity of ideas and experiences. For some writers, consultations were a space in which they could share their interests, like unicorns or pokemon, and turn them into subject matter for poetry. For others, the consultations were a space in which rhymes were built and imagery was developed. No matter the approach, feedback from family members suggests that these sessions resulted in writers feeling motivated to tackle the next step of their writing process.
Family members also played an important role in this year’s Cotter Cup. Through e-mail correspondence, we found that families were excited to participate in the Cotter Cup alongside their children. Many sought out ways to get started with the writing process, or even to keep the momentum from the contest going. These interactions reveal to us that the impact of the Cotter Cup extends far beyond the contest’s start and end dates!
This year’s successes would not have been possible without the help of our volunteers. We had an absolutely all-star cast of consultants who were excited to work with these writers. The enthusiasm and knowledge they brought to each session made a huge impact. Thank you to: Eli Megibben, Maddy Decker, Aubrie Cox, Brice Montgomery, Cassie Book, Kylee Auten, Yuan Zhao, Zoë Donovan, and Ayaat Ismail.
Reflecting on their Cotter Cup interactions, one tutor wrote, “These kids are wildly talented.” I think they speak for all of us in saying this. The writers who participated in this year’s Cotter Cup are incredibly talented, but most of all, they are driven. We are so grateful that we were able to be witness to their amazing creativity this spring, and we look forward to Cotter Cup ‘23!
Along with the rest of the world, the University Writing Center is still emerging from and living with the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes our signature programming, such as the week long Dissertation Writing Retreat each May. While we’ve still held the retreat for the past two years, it has been 100% online. This year we opted to go back in-person. And we are so glad we did.
Maybe it was being back in person after two years of being isolated graduate students. Maybe it was the donut shop coffee from the UofL Stockroom. Maybe it was having four PhD participants from Urban and Public Affairs. Maybe it was the specific small group discussion topics such as Building Strong Writing Habits or Sentence-Level Editing. Maybe it was the spice blend on the chicken from Mi Sueño for Wednesday’s lunch. Maybe it was the perfect daily balance of writing time, small group discussions, and individual consultations. We aren’t sure what it was, but last week the thirteen participants, five administrators, and four consultants felt something magical happen when we all came together with a shared focus on dissertation writing and developing confidence in one’s self as a scholar. I’ll let the participants, administrators, and writers say more…
Maryam Entezam, PhD Candidate in Urban and Public Affairs: The outcomes of the Dissertation Writing Retreat were beyond my expectation. It helped me realize that writing a dissertation is or can be very difficult and tedious, but what matters is the incremental steps that I take to accomplish my goal. Every strategy that was offered during the Retreat (whether is was from the experts at the retreat or other students) was really helpful. Building strong writing habits, setting daily/weekly goals, figuring out the habits, tools, and processes that help me construct a good writing habit, having journals, saving drafts of the writings that may not seem needed at the time, setting deadlines for myself, time management, getting help, not overcriticizing myself and underestimating my abilities, avoiding perfectionism, and remembering that I am not alone are some of many things that the Dissertation Writing Retreat helped me learn…
Brenton Hereford, PhD Candidate in Urban and Public Affairs: I found the retreat to be quite useful in both motivating the writing process, and at the same time it helped to envision the finish line of the dissertation process, both of which are daunting to approach and difficult to visualize. The Writing Retreat certainly was a critical part in the completion of my dissertation.
Participants who wish to remain anonymous: “The retreat helped a great deal about writing the dissertation. I had attended the retreat three or four years ago, but at that time, I only had general ideas about chapter contents and overall approach to my goal. I had not yet written by Prospectus Brief or Prospectus Long, or taken my Comprehensive Exam. Having finished those, I had a much better overall strategy as to where I was going with the dissertation. The retreat helped me to implement much of that and also to consider how to organize it and express my intent.”
“In academia, I usually receive comments on my field skill and knowledge, but not on my writing. Thus, I asked my consultant at first day to evaluate my writing and give me general feedback to improve my writing, which I found it so helpful.”
Consultants and Assistant Directors
Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director: This year’s dissertation retreat was an incredible experience both for me and the writers I worked with. Prior to this year’s retreat, I had only participated in virtual dissertation writing retreats. However, working with dissertation writers in-person this year made me better appreciate the dedication writers put into their research endeavors regardless of other stressors they constantly have to navigate, some with full time jobs and others with extenuating family responsibilities. Nevertheless, in keeping with the idea of making the dissertating process work, these writers were grateful for the opportunity to work alongside dissertating colleagues in the same space, feeding off each other’s energy, strategies, and stories. One of the writers I worked with was especially impressed by how the retreat was tailored to not only help them achieve their immediate writing goals but also afford them strategies/avenues to keep the momentum beyond the retreat.
Liz Soule, Assistant Director: I’m so grateful to have been able to take part in this year’s Dissertation Writing Retreat. This is my third DWR, however, it is my first in-person retreat. Being able to witness the hard work of our dissertation writers live and in-person this week was a phenomenal experience. From their conscientious efforts during our morning writing time, to the way they built community and shared their experiences in our workshops, to how they grew through their consultations, our dissertation writers worked tirelessly to develop both their writing and their own habits and processes as writers. As someone who is just embarking on their own dissertation, I’m so glad I was able to take part in this, and I intend to take the lessons of the DWR with me in my own writing journey.
Todd Richardson, Assistant Director: This week has been such an illuminative process, one that I’m grateful to have had the chance to participate in. These dissertating writers are focused, driven, creative, and committed to learning how to write. It’s been eye-opening to work with so many writers on such varied topics—from horse riding in ancient China, to bio/nano technologies that help treat brain cancer, to microbiological explanation for why proteins stick to certain surfaces… To see these dissertating writers’ enthusiasm and joy as they progress through the week has served as an affirmation that what we do at the WC matters to the UofL community. It has been humbling and awe inspiring to work.
Kendyl Harmeling, consultant: This was my first year working the University Writing Center’s Dissertation Writing Retreat, and as well my first time seeing it in full swing in-person since I’ve been at UofL. In Writing Studies, we read and write a lot about the energy in rooms full of writers writing, and this was my first time getting to feel and witness that energy in such an interdisciplinary community of scholars. Being in a room with writers writing is one of the great joys of working at the DWR, as well getting to focus some of that energy for an hour every day with the two writers I had the privilege of working with this week. In our sessions, we not only found paths forward through the messy process of dissertating, but, as well, found community between and amidst our unique fields of study and the issues we care about as scholars. We, too, found friendships and possibilities for future scholarly collaboration. This DWR was a week of communal writing and individual reflection, personal growth and disciplinary boundary pushing, and was a meaningful display of the powerful energy which can result from a room of writers writing.
Brice Montgomery, consultant: The Dissertation Writing Retreat was nothing short of an absolute pleasure! At the start of the week, I’m sure many writers wondered the same thing I did—“What are we going to do with so much yet so little time?” The consultations birthed out of that question offered a unique space to work, and the recurring, extended sessions took on a rhythm found only in the retreat. Daily conversations were expansive and fruitful, and I think they helped make the “big picture” seem less big. Ultimately, the retreat created an opportunity to step back, consider the dissertation as a whole, and take meaningful steps forward without getting lost in the sheer scope of such a large work.
August 23, 2021. It was a big day for us. After seventeen (yes, I counted) months of 100% online services, the University Writing Center opened its doors again for in-person consultations for the Fall 2021 semester. While we were hesitant about what consultations would be like with masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant spray, we soon found that the opportunity to talk to writers face-to-face was worth the stress of figuring out how to come together.
Hopefully it goes without saying that our proudest accomplishment this year is our successful transition (back) to in-person consultations in the midst of the ebb and flow of COVID-19 cases and our feelings of personal and collective safety. In other words, this year’s consultants didn’t miss a beat in jumping in to work with writers, both in-person and online. Our staff maintained a shared commitment to working with a wide range of UofL writers. They were first-year composition students hesitantly writing their first annotated bibliographies. They were Southern Police Institute students composing academic research papers after many years away from the classroom. They were seniors writing essays for Fulbright applications (that they would later receive). They were pre-nursing students writing personal statements for their nursing applications. They were PhD students getting started on their dissertations in Education, Engineering, Business and Public Health. They were even a few elementary school students writing poems about unicorns and universes. They were all writers whom we served this year.
News and Accomplishments in Academic Year 2021-2022
In November, after the departure of Amber Yocum for the School of Education, we welcomed Maddy Decker as the Program Assistant, Senior! Since she started, Maddy has been indispensable in keeping our appointments and front desk running smoothly. She has kept our appointment schedule up to date, often making last-minute adjustments for sick consultants and constantly monitoring the virtual schedule. She is often the first face or voice that writers interact with; she provides a calming and reassuring presence daily to consultants and writers. We are so happy she decided to join our team!
Bronwyn Williams earned a sabbatical for the Spring 2022 semester. He is working on a book about the experiences of university students during the pandemic and is a visiting scholar at the School of Education at the University of Bristol. I (Cassandra Book) am currently serving as the Acting Director during Bronwyn’s sabbatical. As one consultant kindly put it, I am “keeping the ship upright and sailing smoothly through the general upheaval of these times.”
Beyond Tutoring – Writing Groups, Community Writing, and More
Our work extends beyond the writing consultation. Our administrators, like Maddy, help create the logistical infrastructure and supportive environment so that our consultants can do their jobs. In addition, our administrative staff leads outreach, including conducting presentations, facilitating workshops, leading writing groups, maintaining community partnerships. Our Assistant Directors, Olalekan Adepoju, Elizabeth Soule, Todd Richardson, and Michael Benjamin helped to ensure that mentoring and outreach work happened professionally and with a strong disciplinary base.
Our popular LGBTQ+, Faculty and Graduate Student, and Creative Writing writing groups continued to give UofL writers supportive communities through which they could create and talk about writing. A big thanks to Elizabeth Soule and Aubrie Cox for volunteering their time to support LGBTQ+ and Creative Writing Groups this year. Olalekan Adepoju, as the Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, has led the Graduate and Faculty Writing Group for the past two years and will pass on the baton in June.
We worked with our partners at Family Scholar House to offer their participants an online writing laboratory. This would not have been possible without both the constant correspondence and support from our partners at Family Scholar House, in particular Nia Boyd. Additionally, it was only due to the kind contributions of this year’s volunteers that we were able to offer these hours. Thank you to: Ayaat Ismail, Emma Turner, Morgan Blair, Cecilia Durbin and Michael Benjamin. The time that you committed to working with students means a lot to all of us.
We also worked with the Western Branch of the LFPL to organize and hold the 2022 Cotter Cup, a K-12 poetry contest. Last year, we worked with Western Branch to revive the 100-year old tradition. University Writing Center volunteers worked with K-12 writers to brainstorm, draft and revise their poems for the contest. Over the course of two weeks, our volunteers worked with 28 separate individuals in 30-minute sessions. A cast of all-star judges are reviewing poems as we speak, and we look forward to finding out the winners in May. We’re grateful to the contributions of our volunteers: Eli Megibben, Maddy Decker, Aubrie Cox, Brice Montgomery, Cassie Book, Kylee Auten, Yuan Zhao, Zoë Donovan, Ayaat Ismail and Liz Soule.
We are also proud of the work our staff does as academics, professionals, researchers, and, honestly, people, beyond the University Writing Center. Please take a moment to read over their individual professional accomplishments and, if you see them or know them, congratulate them on their hard work!
Michael J. Benjamin presented “Antiracist and Inclusive Conferencing: Co-Constructing Access, Attending to Power, and Practicing Accountability” at the 2022 College Composition and Communication Conference and “Modal Responsivity: Ethical Pivots to Meet Pandemic-Induced Distance Education Challenges” at the 2022 Computers and Writing Conference. He also served as the inaugural 2021-2022 The Big Rhetorical Podcast Fellow, his work discussed in Episode 92.
Melissa Rothman received a position as a library specialist for undergraduate research with Ekstrom library.
Mikaela Smith earned a summer internship with the IT department at Humana. She also served in a leadership role with the UofL Chinese Scholars Union (CSU), hosing various successful events. She has been elected Vice President of the CSU for 2022-2023.
We will be open during the summer, starting May 9, from 9-4 every weekday. In May, we will again hold our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat; it will be in-person for the first time since 2019. You can find out more on our website. You can also follow us on our blog and on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
One of the things I love about working in the University Writing Center is the exposure I get to so much fascinating and important work. I’ve read about entrepreneurship among Rohingya refugees, the impact of sexual health on longevity, green building practices in sports venues, what Afrofuturism tells us about our history…. Pardon my childlike gushing, but it’s so cool! This is why I love academia. People are creating knowledge here! Aaaand that leads me to what I’ve been writing about. Yep, knowledge.
What, really, does it mean to create new knowledge? What is knowledge? Wait! Don’t go away yet! I promise, it’ll be interesting. I won’t put you to sleep. Well I might… but you’ve been needing to catch up on sleep, haven’t you? Knowledge… well, let’s begin with a bromide: they say “knowledge is power.” Get the knowledge, then you’ll have power. Go to school, learn some stuff, and now you’re Captain America. We all want to feel powerful. Nobody’s angling to be powerless. Well yes maybe but… But let’s think this through a bit. Power is the ability to do something, it’s potential. You learn some stuff to empower yourself to do things. But it won’t mean much if you don’t actually ever do. So it’s the doing that matters. You might “know” some things, but it’s what that does, it’s how that shapes your behavior and creates material effects in the world, that has any importance or value. You might know what the capital of Georgia is or how to juggle five balls, but unless and until that brings you glory at your local pub quiz or impresses everybody at the party including that certain someone, it’s uh, purely academic. It’s just information, neutral and inert, until its usage has material effects. And the imperfect predictability of these results and the results of those results and of everything is what elevates knowledge over information.
So maybe the phrase, “knowledge is power,” while pithy, doesn’t quite get us there. A focus on material effects, on application, urges us toward a different understanding of knowledge. I think Wanda Orlikowski (2002, 2006) gets it right when she talks about knowledge as practice. Ah. So it’s doing something. It’s in the doing. Knowing about car engines versus actually getting that car right there to run again. Knowing physics versus actually getting someone to the moon.
Orlikowski elaborates. “Know-how” is a capability generated through action. And this requires repeated actions. These sustain the “know-how” while also, of course, adapting it, improving it, expanding it, in some way changing it. So the idea that knowledge is some inert, stable thing or repository of things is an illusion. It looks that way because we keep repeating it. It’s a bit like how a movie looks real because our mind does that little trick of stitching all those individual images together into a fluid whole. Except in this case the individual images are events, actions, each very similar yet slightly different from the last. Or it’s like how an insect wing looks like it’s not moving but is actually flapping a zillion times a second. Just remember that the wing itself is not stable either. It’s also changing, growing, aging. Did you know that trees vibrate? Knowledge, then, is like a tree, always changing, or okay but really more accurately, knowledge, as practice, is change. There is nor was there ever no stable thing that then changes slightly. It’s always changing. Indeed, this is how we know change, and recognizing change is how we mark time, and for that matter, space. How you like them apples? But let’s not bite off more than we can chew in one blog post…
What does this mean for knowing how to write? That’s what you tuned in for, right? I thought knowing how to write was, basically, you know, learning some vocabulary and nailing down the grammatical rules. That would be nice. Then it’d be a simple matter of collect all twelve! Buy the Happy Meal, get the toy, put it on your shelf, repeat. Trade them with your friends. Trade them for money! But surely thou didst know that language changeth over time and space. Aye, ’tis ne’er so stable a thing as me lord thus willeth thou what okay nevermind. No it doesn’t work that way. The rules are mere conventions, and dig a little and you’ll find considerable disagreement about and variation even within those conventions. Word meanings are always changing (read the etymology of your favorite word on the OED or spend five minutes browsing the Urban Dictionary), sustained through practice and but also thereby always changing. This isn’t a movie, no nice tidy plots. Knowing how to write, like all knowing, is an “ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p252).
So when you’re learning to write (or more accurately, when you’re writing), you’re participating in and contributing to the way things are (more accurately, appear to be) for a given context (or to be fancy, discourse community), such as your discipline. An interesting little thought exercise, no? It calls into question all sorts of things that we take for granted, and it’s massively inconvenient. It gums up the works. How do we know what’s right any more? Goodness me. But on the other hand and at the very least, it also means you should stop berating yourself, if indeed you were. That whole impostor syndrome. That anxiety. That feeling of inferiority. You can dial that back a bit. You’re not “bad at writing” and they are not always and everywhere good at it. You’re joining a community (such a nice-sounding word), and that community has a way of doing things. They’re a bit anxious to keep it that way ’cause it seems to work, to produce some desirable results. But it is nevertheless changing, a living thing, and it lives, in part, because of you.
Orlikowski, W. (2002). Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.
Orlikowski, W. (2006). Material knowing: The scaffolding of human knowledgeability. European Journal of Information Systems, 15, 460-466.
“The job of writing centers is to produce better writers, not better writing.” This assertion by Stephen North is, surely, a familiar maxim to most writing center practitioners. But, has anyone also considered how writers can help writing centers produce better tutors? I believe the goal of every tutor is to develop their tutoring skill using every available means; that is why I think, as consultants, by listening to learn from writers, especially those writing in genres we are unfamiliar with, we have the unique opportunity develop our tutoring skills.
Listening is paramount to the tutorial work we do in the writing center. Generally, the tutor tends to listen to several things during tutoring session: you passively listening to your inner thoughts about the draft and, more importantly, listening to the writer’s comments or questions. Moreover, writing center scholars and practitioners admit that listening is essential to achieving an efficient tutoring in the writing center. They submit that listening is not only a means of developing a tutor’s understanding of the current session but also a means for working from, with, and across differences, becoming increasingly aware of those differences rather than flattening or ignoring them. This submission means that listening is a tool for making tutors become better at their tutoring craft. Hence, tutors interested in advancing their craft must be open and willing to listen to learn (from the writers) specific ways to develop their level of awareness.
In listening to learn, we move beyond attempting to adjust our knowledge of the generic needs of writers, especially when dealing with unfamiliar writing genre, to learning to become more aware of this unfamiliar writing genre in efforts to achieve a successful tutoring session. Listening to learn does not entail knowing (or pretending to know) about the subject matter. Rather, listening to learn helps the tutor to achieve meaningful awareness of subject matter necessary for some sense of comfort during the session. Such subject matter awareness would, for instance, help to clear up certain confusions; move past genre-specific jargons and develop interpretive questions, thereby ensuring that the goals of the tutoring session are efficiently met.
In my work with science writers, for example, I continue to practice the ‘listen-to-learn’ approach because I want to be more aware of the means to navigate the seemingly unfamiliar writing genre. From these writers, I have learned ways to not only guide them effectively during their session but also become a better tutor for future work with scientific or related writing genre. For instance, one of the science writers I work with always provides an overview of their essay using visual aids such as diagrams. My sense is that the writer assumes I’m not a specialist in science-related concepts and describing their work in abstract terms might confuse me, and indirectly lead to a tutoring breakdown. So, to make me aware of the subject matter of their writing project, the writer explained concepts to me with the aid of diagrams. While they do not expect me to become knowledgeable of the topic, by listening to the writer’s explanatory context, this subject-matter awareness afforded me a good level of confidence to meaningfully engage the writer and their writing. Additionally, beyond subject-matter awareness, tutors can also become better tutors by being learning to be interculturally aware, especially when working with multilingual writers. Intercultural awareness helps the tutor become more sensitive to processes, situated contexts, and particular situations that influence what and how a writer writes.
Ultimately, while our goal as writing tutors is to utilize every available strategy to help writers hone their writing ability and become better writers, we should not disregard how writers can make us better tutors. As we prioritize listening to learn about the subject matter of the writer’s writing project or non-writing related information the writer willingly shares with us, we generally become more aware of the best means to approach these seemingly unfamiliar genres of writing.
Hi, my name is Eli and I am burnt out. I hear my alarm go off in the morning and I say “no”. My loved ones ask me how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and I say, “I’m not comfortable answering that question right now”. As much as I want to lay down right this very minute and take a big fat nap for five or six or seven days, that’s not really an option right now. Instead, I have to write. I like writing. I’m good at writing. As a general rule, writing brings me joy. At this moment in my life, writing has become a chore. My joy from and talent for writing are still there, but I’m having a hard time sifting through the stress and exhaustion from a particularly rough semester (both academically and personally) to find them. As much as I don’t want to write today, but I have to. It’s nonnegotiable. In the spirit of this, I thought I’d take this blogging opportunity to share three ways I try to manage my own burn out and get writing done even when I don’t feel like it:
Pace yourself with structured work time and break time.
When I’m staring down the barrel of a very homework-y day, I organize my time in 20- or 30-minute chunks. 20-30 minutes of reading for class, 20-30 minutes of reading for fun. 20-30 minutes of writing an outline, 20-30 minutes doodling. 20-30 minutes of writing a blog post for the University Writing Center website, 20-30 minutes of taking a walk. Pacing myself and strictly limiting both my work and break time helps me keep my energy up for the day. Also notice that I didn’t say anything about “20-30 minutes on Facebook reading about that person from high school’s really messy breakup” or “20-30 minutes of looking up ‘how long until they finish cloning that Wooly Mammoth they found in Siberia last year?””. I know that once I start goofing off on the internet, then all of the nice discipline I’ve observed throughout the day will go out the window and suddenly four hours will have elapsed, and I’ll still be texting my friends screenshots of articles quoting arrogant biologists claiming that we shouldn’t try to bring back prehistoric mammals with the caption “can you believe this chump?’” And then I will wonder where my day has gone and why I haven’t gotten anything done. Maybe you’re better than me and know how to use the internet in moderation when tasked with something you don’t have the energy to do. Or maybe you and I are more alike than either of us want to admit.
2. Establish physical boundaries between you and your work
Ah, “boundaries”. My second-favorite “b-word”. I don’t know about you, but I love a good boundary. Whether its boundaries with work, friends, or even the cashier at CVS who felt compelled to tell me about what life was like leading up to her most recent colonoscopy, I use boundaries to protect my (waning) energy and (frail) emotions a lot these days. Unfortunately, this this current cultural moment doesn’t really support my affection for boundaries. And that pesky plague we’ve all been surviving for almost 25 months has made the issue worse. Possibly the most effective boundary I have with work is determining where I do my work. I let myself work on the computer or read wherever I’m comfortable –in my office, in my yard, at a coffee shop, even on the couch if that’s what I need that day— while also establishing a few spaces as “no work zones”. My bedroom is one of those places. By making my room a “rest only” area, it is easier for me to shift out of work mode and have more meaningful and effective rest. I know some folks don’t have the luxury of being able to spread out enough to make their entire bedroom a “no work zone”, and when I was in that position as an undergraduate, I made my bed the “no work zone”. Even in a cramped dorm room, I made these boundaries work by dropping $30 on trampoline chair that I could fold up and slide into a corner when not in use. Separating work spaces from break spaces is a trick I have employed since I was in high school and it has helped me to make the most out of my rest, even when I am not getting very much of it.
3. Let yourself be kind of a smart aleck
The other two tips are pretty general “navigate burnout” tips. This one is specifically for writing. Have you ever found yourself staring glassy-eyed at the blinking cursor of a blank Microsoft Word document wondering how the hell you are going to write a paper about an assigned reading that you absolutely despised? A reading that made your stomach spasm a little? A reading that made you question if learning how to read was even worth it? I know I’ve had plenty of those readings in my life as a student and they usually leave me with nothing nice to say. And in those cases, I let the bitterness out. I write the snarkiest intro paragraph I can muster. And by the time I have something vile written down, I’m not staring at a blank Word Document anymore and I’m able to proceed with the paper. Being a smart aleck during the preliminary writing stages doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to hitting your page count, but it will help you exorcise some of your frustration and can help you power through and get it done.
*Please note that your smart-aleck interludes should not be included in your final draft. Do not turn in something rude and unpleasant to your professor. It’s not cute and they are not paid enough to deal with that.
Burnout is a monster. It is also transient and won’t last forever. When I am at the very end of my rope, I like to remind myself (or, more often, let someone else remind me) that being in school is a blessing. An education is one of the few things in the world that nobody can take from you. It is an investment in yourself. This experience is stressful and overwhelming, and we are all so tired. And it’s manageable. Pace yourself, make you physical spaces work and rest-friendly, trust the process and don’t be afraid to indulge in some silliness along the way. Friendly reminder that you’re here for a reason, even if that reason isn’t clear yet. Read your readings, write your papers, and manage your burnout the best you can. I’m right there with you, and I’m rooting for you.
“The task of critical reflection is not merely to understand the various facts in their historical development (…) but also to see through the notion of fact itself, in its development and therefore in its relativity.” ― Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason
Theory provides a critical language, argumentative framework, and stylistic approach to writing. Working in the field of critical theory—a genre of writing developed by thinkers like Frederic Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and the academics of the Frankfurt School—blends critical analysis with artistic inquiry. Critical theory combines the creative and critical by capturing abstract ideas in linguistic concepts, while also depending on intertextual reference to convey is meaning—making a unique academic form for writers. Moreover, the dialectical foundation of theory enables clearly delineated rhetorical structures that depicts the associations between seemingly separate ideas. Thus, theory’s creatively critical genre asks for a writing style that questions exactly what style is—illustrating its unique position between the margins of academic objective analysis and creative expression.
Critical theory offers a specialized language that blends objective criticism with creative intertextuality. Language is obviously an essential characteristic of writing: the unique language of theory not only conceptualizes abstract ideas that help writers articulate difficult thoughts, but the concepts of critical theory also depend on an intertextual history—intertextuality being an artistic device closely related to parody or satire that means to use a word, name, or image in an artistic creation that refers back to a previously created artistic form, generating a new meaning in the reference (like when Anthony Hopkins quotes Shakespeare in HBO’s Westworld)—of cultural criticism that pluralizes the meaning of its concepts, making theory resemble an art form like poetry that requires close attention a multitude of literary devices. Indeed, a term like “logocentrism,” a word coined by Jacques Derrida to illustrate the hierarchy of speech over writing, exemplifies a concept that contains a radically abstract idea that allows academic writers to articulate specificity in their argument. However, feminist and queer scholars developed a special interest in the term (also coined by Derrida) “phallogocentrism,” which indicates the patriarchal occupation of spoken language. By adapting “logocentrism” to a feminist and queer focused analysis, scholars have pluralized the meaning of the term by multiplying its reference points: the definition of the term “phallogocentrism” not only refers to the research of the feminist and queer thinkers who developed it, but also to Derrida’s philosophical work. The adaption of the terms illustrates the intertextual dependence of critical theory concepts, making the genre of theory a unique field of academic criticism and artistic creation. Thus, theory’s combination of objective analysis with poetic intertextuality to interrogate language and convey ideas that simple denotation cannot express illustrates a unique writing style that makes theory critical and creative. The style of theory writing transforms academic research into a version of artistic commentary that expresses profound ideas in a creative form.
The dialectical foundation of critical theory enables abstract associations to be formulated in an understandable written organization. Dialectical argumentation has been performed for thousands of years—Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to advocate dialectical techniques in rhetorical analyses. It was Frederick Hegel and Karl Marx who developed the dialectical model to a critique of culture, then carried on by Jameson, the Frankfurt School, and Derrida as a core characteristic of their philosophies. The most basic dialectical model is the thesis, antithesis, synthesis structure, which takes one phenomenon (like the content of a story) and compares it with another seemingly different phenomenon (like the form or medium of a story) to show that the meaning of an artwork depends on a relationship between its content and form. In argumentative writing, dialectics works by comparing one claim to its opposite in order to (synthesize) illustrate the similarity between the two ideas. If someone wants to claim that wealthier individuals should pay higher taxes, a dialectical argument will point out the benefits of the claim, but also the (antithetical) claims supporting the opposing side who believes taxes should be lower. The dialectical synthesis, therefore, combines the two ideas to illustrate how the original claim supplements the arguments of the opposing side—not simply how one side is better, but how both sides combine to create a new understanding of the problem. Thus, structuring essays dialectically creates a roadmap for nuanced analysis, as well as a consciousness for how the meaning of a written work is conditioned by its presentation in a particular form. The dialectical model illustrates the creative and the critical aspects of the theory genre because it asks writers to be aware of the metaphysical aspects that inform interpretations of their work, while also acting as a structure for argumentative analysis.
Theory lives on the margins of objective analysis and creative inquiry, making it a unique style of academic writing. Critical theory twists the supposed difference between academic criticism and creative production because it is a writing style that blurs categories. Theory blends the poetic with the positional, which creates a distinctive style of academic writing that questions the separation of objective analysis and subjective understanding. Critical theory is creative because it steeps in the ambiguity of language and relies on pluralized, intertextual association to convey the meanings of its ideas. It remains critical, however, because the subject of its inquiry is cultural conditions and phenomena. Thus, theory writing embodies a unique writing practice—conveying truths in a decentered form.
I have made chicken stock more times than I can count. Four times a week over the course of a fifteen-year culinary career really adds up. There is a large pot of stock simmering on my stove as I write this, a weekly ritual I cannot abandon despite trading my chef knife for a pen four years ago. And while I want to talk about a few generalizable revision tips today, I am reminded how all those years of cooking have informed my writing process, so let’s start by discussing the perfect batch of broth.
I started making stock eighteen year ago. Back then, I aimed for excellence, mirroring my mentor’s movements, seeing how he chopped the culinary trinity of mirepoix—two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery—breathing in the aromatic cauldron of rosemary and thyme while I learned from the best. The six-hour repetition of producing liquid gold became my obsession, and by the hundredth pot I foolishly thought I had attained a mastery. After five hundred, I realized I was only scratching the surface. Like with any craft, there was a wealth of nuance and depth I’d never even considered. I began reevaluating details, trying to notice every modifiable aspect of the process. Was I roasting the bones too long or not long enough? Should I have blanched them? Why did I put the parsley in so early? I also started reading books by great chefs like Escoffier, Child, and Keller, taking in the identical elements of their methods and blending them with my own. Each subsequent attempt became a chance to learn and improve, with every minor modification written down. The herb infused pot bubbling in my kitchen is a result of those efforts. Is it the perfect batch? No. After all that effort, I learned perfection isn’t the point. Discovering my own process is what has mattered most.
I started writing stories the week I turned thirty. While it was a tough transition at first, the more I wrote and revised, the more I realized those culinary lessons could translate to my writing. Just like with my stock, it was all about figuring out my own style. I found that I write my best stories in the morning, and that if I’m excited about an idea, the story tells itself. I trained my creativity by reading greats like Baldwin, Bradbury, and Vonnegut, taking the best ingredients from their styles and whisking them into my own. But most of all, like with the daily process of improvement I had picked up in the kitchen, I figured out how my writing ticked from the iterative act of revision.
One of the biggest questions I get when consulting with creative writers in the UofL Writing Center is: How do I know if I’m going in the right direction? The only answer I’ve found, as simple as it sounds, is that we all learn best through thorough revision. And although every writer is different, here are some basic revision principles to help any writer find what works for them, my own culinary trinity of noticing, asking why, and putting it away.
#1 Notice: A critical aspect of revision, from beginning to end, is noticing the choices we make and turning them into a list. I mean this in the simplest of terms: Read your draft and mark down any line and or that doesn’t feel quite right. Try rereading the piece faster and see what happens. Does the feeling go away? If it doesn’t, you have isolated a concern. The key to finding successful revision strategies comes from learning to notice the peculiar aspects of your own writing, turning those thoughts into a list, and adding to the list when you see something new. Sound simple? That’s because it is. The repetition of noticing is one of the most essential tools in a writer’s kit.
# 2 Ask why: To make the best stock I could, I questioned every aspect of the process, from how large I cut my vegetables, down to what kind of strainer I used to obtain the final product. The same goes for my writing. Why did I start with a long sentence in the second paragraph of this blog? What’s with the whole ‘culinary trinity’ thing? Is it cheesy? Probably. With your newfound noticed list in hand, critically question your own process. Write those questions down as they appear and keep reading. Oftentimes, an answer will arrive unannounced moments later and resolve an entire paragraph of concerns. Even when you think you have found that magical solution, ask why and when and where. Never stop questioning, because the more you do, the more you will notice about your process, resulting in a deliberate approach.
#3 Put it away. After reading a draft a dozen times, you might start feeling stuck. Put the piece away and let your thoughts simmer. I’ve struggled with individual scenes from a story for weeks, eventually tossing the draft aside in frustration, only to stew on the idea and find a fully cooked solution when I least expected it. You never know when an idea will appear, but it is vital to trust that it will. This also goes for unused scraps. If you notice a sentence or paragraph isn’t working, paste it to a new document or scrap of paper and forget about it. I’ve had scraps from one story save a scene in another after weeks of failed solutions. Those opportunities disappear when you delete bad lines. So put it away for a while and know that the answer will come, even if it doesn’t happen today.
The toughest part of writing is figuring out the fine details of our process. There are no quick workarounds to that. To find those answers, we must become vigilant noticers, examining every aspect of our writing, and organizing strategies around what we consistently see. There will never be a perfect recipe for chicken stock or immaculate revision strategy, but by surrounding our processes with attention, we have the chance to make them wonderfully ours.
If you couldn’t already tell, this blog post is all about titles. How to make ‘em, what to do with ‘em, and what they are for. Ever since high school, titles have been one of the most effective ways I get myself to care about my writing. In undergrad, I would come up with all sorts of fun titles, usually a pun or pop culture reference, just to get my creative juices going, and to get myself thinking critically about the material. It was one of the ways I made academic writing—which I hate—more interesting and (frankly) more bearable. Some of my favorite’s included references to Star Wars’ terrible dialogue writing (“Now this is podracing”) when I wrote a paper for a film study course analyzing the podracing scene from The Phantom Menace, and a reference to The Princess Bride’s RUSes in a paper for my Linguistics course all about agglutinative languages (languages that make new words by tacking on more and more suffixes and prefixes), that I cleverly titled “Words of Unusual Size.” While making fun titles is a great way to get the gears turning creatively, it doesn’t always do much to describe your paper to your reader, especially if you are like me and are in grad school and don’t get to have fun anymore.
The University of Michigan has a great resource for how to create compelling academic paper titles. The academic title consists of three parts: the hook, key terms, and a location. The hook is the part of your title that will give you the most creative freedom. It is the element of your title that draws in your reader, what makes them want to read your paper in the first place. Try to pick out the most interesting part of your paper or try to distill your paper down into one or two words to help guide your hook. I wrote a paper last semester about Moll Cutpurse, a fascinating character from Renaissance England. The paper was all about how Cutpurse represented gender presentation that was inherently transgressive in just about every way imaginable. For my hook I chose “Transgressive Sexuality.” Key terms are helpful for describing what your paper is about to your reader. They are usually terms essential to the topic of your paper, and if you are looking to publish, using key terms in your title will make your paper easier to find in a database. Think of your title as a sort of logline of your paper, the briefest of elevator pitches. They should give your reader an immediate understanding of what the purpose of your essay is, and the concepts you will be discussing in your paper. These are very rarely interesting, and typically very literal describers of the contents of your paper. For example, returning to my Moll Cutpurse example, for my key terms, I chose “Cross-dressing and Transvestitism.” The location gives context for the concepts being discussed and the scope of the paper all at once. What you use as your location will vary depending on what you are writing about, the genre you are writing in, and the discipline you are writing from. For an English paper, this might look like the time period in which a text was written, or if you’re taking a New Critical approach, it might just be a character’s name and the title of the text in which they appear. If you are writing a more scientific paper, it will probably look more like the data sample you are studying. For my Moll Cutpurse paper, my location was “Jacobean London”
As an example, a full title might look something like “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime: Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism in the Context of Defoe’s Puritanism.” Something like that, if you were to write a paper on Robinson Crusoe. Of course, my full Moll Cutpurse title was “Transgressive Sexuality: Cross Dressing and Transvestitism in Jacobean London.” Or, if I were to draft a scientific paper, it might look something like “AI Doctors: Cancer Screening and Machine Learning in Patients 65 and Up.” In the first example, “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime” acts as our hook, describing the basic premise of the paper in an interesting way. “Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism” are obviously our key terms, and “Defoe’s Puritanism” is the location, giving us all the context, the reader needs to understand exactly what this paper is going to be talking about. In the second example, the locations of the hook, key terms, and location are in the same place, performing all the same jobs.
This method of academic title creation is clearly a versatile and useful tool to keep in your back pocket if you ever get stuck. I’ll be using it myself on my final papers this semester. But don’t let this method stifle your creativity! This method is just one of the many ways to create a title, and it is by no means the “best” way. There’s an adage in writing pedagogy that says, “the best way to learn to write is to read.” That be made even more specific for titles: “the best way to write titles is to read titles.” But sometimes, if you just need to get yourself interested in writing, just coming up with a creative, fun title does the trick.
This post is the second in a two-part series on co-authorship from different perspectives. In this second post, we’ll discuss ways to use writing center sessions as a model for negotiating the co-writing process and reflect on the experience of co-writing this blog. The first part addressed key cognitive and pedagogical considerations in co-writing projects.
Group writing is present in all levels of the academic community. There are informal co-writing opportunities, like a group chat that helps you better understand your discussion board post, but there are also the formal, much more nerve-wracking co-writing projects that, as we discussed last week, cause frustration and anger despite their benefits. Perhaps establishing productive group dynamics is the most harrowing aspect of a co-written project. Each participant will have to put forth their contributions and then, together, the group will have to decide in which direction they will take the piece. Both before the project begins and throughout the duration of the writing process, collaborators will have to manage and negotiate workloads and responsibilities that allow each party to reach their goals. A writing center appointment is kind of like that, too, in that the writer and the consultant have to balance their contributions in order to meet their goals. There is (hopefully) mutual effort and negotiation in every writing center appointment. In this post, we are going to explore facets of writing center practices that correlate to group writing. To do so, we’ll reflect on our own experience writing this series of blog posts.
One thing that has to be negotiated in every writing center consultation, whether overtly or not, is the role each person will play in the consultation. The writer and the consultant must work together to determine who is responsible for what during the appointment. This is rarely an explicit process, but it will become clear throughout the session that each person takes on certain tasks. Likewise, co-authors must agree on their responsibilities regarding their project, but these roles do not always have to be as clearly defined as they are in a writing center session. For example, when writing this blog series, we did not set strict tasks other than taking on the main responsibility for one post and providing in-depth feedback and revisions for the other post. Other than that, we wanted to remain flexible when it came to “assigning” roles. For instance, one role co-writers might want to establish is a dedicated note taker, but we found it more productive to both take notes since we tended to pick up on different ideas during our meetings. Additionally, we both performed research related to the project, and we both had an active role in developing the outline and structure for the blog posts. This fluidity and casualness that we established may not be possible for every group writing project (for sure, I’m almost certain these blurred boundaries could complicate an actual writing center session), but as long as the boundaries, or lack of boundaries, are negotiated and agreed upon by all parties, then the work should be smooth sailing.
Ownership is a tricky thing in a collaborative writing project. In writing center appointments, consultants always aim to provide helpful feedback without pushing the writer to make unwanted changes–we want to ensure writers maintain ownership of their document. A co-authored project, however, does not have the same clean break between who is in charge of the piece. Each person contributing to the project should have a vested interest in the process, content, and product. Yet, even when all parties are invested in the project, there can still be some tension, or at least misunderstanding. For this project, ownership became tricky when we were dividing the workload. Together, we separated our content into two complementary posts, but then we had to decide who would write the first draft of each post. When Brice suggested we each “write a draft,” Kylee thought he meant we would each write a draft of both posts, but that’s because she worked under the assumption that we held dual ownership over the whole project. Brice, on the other hand, had perceived that we were individually taking ownership over one half of the project. Besides this breakdown in communication, we did feel like we had equal control over the project when it came to making suggestions or revisions to the other person’s writing. Without this shared sense of ownership, we would not have learned as much from this writing process.
Instruction and Feedback
As co-authors, you have to be willing to learn from each other. John Hedgecock, in his book chapter “Reflections of Coauthorship and the Professional Dialogue: Risks and Rewards,” encourages those interested in co-authoring to partner with someone whose skills will balance and complement your own (114). This is true, as well, of writing center appointments, because successful sessions also rely on complementary skills and knowledge. For instance, consultants should know the mechanics for how to write an argumentative essay, but they rely on writers to bring the content knowledge needed to successfully make their argument. So, in a way, there is mutual instruction and feedback happening in every appointment; the consultant instructs the writer on writing practices while the writer instructs the consultant on content. In co-authorship, there may be less instruction on practical writing topics, but each person is going to have different knowledge to add to the project, which they will inevitably have to teach to their partner. We each had two different takeaways regarding what we had learned from each other. For Brice, he learned about accountability from Kylee, as she regularly reached out to make sure the project was still moving forward. Kylee, having no experience with co-writing, though, gained practical knowledge from Brice about the best way to approach our drafting phase.
Trust may be the toughest thing to manage in both writing center appointments and co-writing projects. In a writing center consultation, writers have to trust the consultants are giving them accurate, helpful information that will make their writing and their writing process better. Consultants, on the other hand, have to trust writers are engaged with the project and are invested in implementing the strategies discussed during the session. A writing partnership, likewise, must be formed by people who trust their co-author’s advice and know they are both equally interested and invested in the project For us, we felt confident taking on a co-authored project because we had multiple, informal and formal opportunities to work with each other’s individual writing assignments. Additionally, we had previously met for a writing center appointment over one of Kylee’s class assignments, so we were familiar with how our dynamic would play out. We knew, through experience, that we could trust the other to provide honest, productive feedback, even when it meant taking our ideas in a new, unexpected direction.
Like we said last week, group projects probably aren’t going away anytime soon. We hope, though, that this two-part blog series has provided tools and frameworks to help make future co-writing experiences more fulfilling and productive. Focus on what can be gained from the process, not just the project. Chances are, each member in a co-writing project might feel some hesitancy or discomfort, but rely on establishing healthy boundaries, take ownership of the project, delight in the new information being learned, and find trustworthy people to collaborate with.
Hedgecock, John. “Reflections of Coauthorship and the Professional Dialogue: Risks and Rewards.” Writing for Scholarly Publication: Behind the Scenes in Language Education, edited by Christine Pearson Casanave and Stephanie Vandrick, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003, pp. 113-127.